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Discovering a Church’s Hidden History in My Palisades Home
By Alex Knott
Nothing in the realty ads, basic city records and closing documents suggested that our new home once had a 61-foot steeple that towered into the Palisades sky. The housing brochures also did not showcase how the kitchen and dining areas once doubled as a 1900s-era Sunday schoolroom. Nor was there the century-old claim that the living and family rooms had the capacity for nearly 200 church goers.
Yet, further research into my Palisades home bought in 2017 revealed that the building was originally not a house at all, but one of more than 100 churches drawn up a century ago by a famous architectural family.
Intrigued by Paul Kelsey Williams’ “Lost Washington,” and the House History Man Blog, I began researching my Palisades home. That’s when I was pleasantly surprised to learn it was originally called Northwest Methodist Episcopal Church.
Ads for the house on 4901 MacArthur Boulevard mirrored most of DC’s records saying it was just a residence built in 1916. But a deeper dive into building records, newspaper archives, and property records shows that construction on my home actually began in September 1904, when it was granted a building permit as a church.
A 1907 map, shows the church appearing on the northwest corner of W Street and Conduit Road (which was renamed MacArthur Boulevard for General Douglas MacArthur a few months after Pearl Harbor). At the time, the church was among the first 20 buildings constructed in “the Palisades of the Potomac,” a new group of residential lots converted from the vacant farmlands on the northwest hills of Georgetown.
The building’s architects were Benjamin D. Price and Max Charles Price, a Philadelphia father-son duo who drew up the “Church Plans” for some 100 churches in at least 22 states stretching from Florida to Washington State toward the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.
Today, many of the Prices’ other existing buildings are protected as American treasures under the National Register of Historic Places including some local architectural work on Alexandria’s clock tower and steeple for City Hall, left, and the new market house/town hall buildings on North Royal Street.
The new parish was reportedly the convergence of two smaller churches — a chapel branch of the Dumbarton Avenue Church and the Little Falls Methodist Episcopal Church on Canal Road sold a couple years earlier. The pastor heading up the new congregation was the seasoned Rev. William H. Black, an 81-year-old Union Civil War veteran, who worked in the records division of the pension office.
Northwest M. E. Church Trustees paid an estimated $3,000 to local builder W. E. Pickford to construct the church. Pickford was not known for building churches but rather dozens of DC homes including, the shops and residences at 3403 M Street, the Fremont condominiums in Logan Circle and a couple houses near the reservoir in the Foxhall-Palisades neighborhood on 47th place.
Pickford appears to have used a variation of the Prices’ Plan 54 (above at video link). The plan also bears a strong resemblance to a construction photo of the Northwest Church that ran locally in The Sunday Star on September 10, 1905 (right).
The accompanying article highlighted details, like how the church’s main entrance was made through the base of a belfry tower. Our current front porch was used by the congregation to enter the building. Today’s kitchen and dining areas were used as a Sunday school room 100 years ago. The rest of main floor was once the auditorium, which was lined with pews creating a seating capacity nearing 200.
Other newspapers articles detail a decade of events at the church, including regular services, Sunday school, and memorials. The Northwest Methodist Episcopal Church was also a venue for the West Washington Citizens Association (WWCA), which held regular meetings there preceding a reorganization by members to create the Conduit Road Citizens Association (CRCA). This offshoot local civics group first organized at the nearby St. David’s Parish Hall on October 2, 1916, but has grown during the last century through its iterations as the MacArthur Citizens Association in 1942 and since 1950, the Palisades Citizens Association.
Following Rev. Black’s death in 1909, the church continued to have financial issues and ultimately was put up for auction. On the August 12,1916, the church began its transition from a DC house of worship to a Palisades family residence as the building was put up for auction as a home. Charles A Baker -- the president of the CRCA and a former vice president of the WWCA, which held meetings in the church -- bought the building in 1916, according to DC tax records.
The year also marks the period when city records erroneously listed the incorrect year that the house was built. Without any documents to substantiate the incorrect year, the Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs has refused to multiple requests with corroborating documents to fix this error.
On the night of Monday July 31, 1922, an electrical short circuit sparked a fire in the building. Engine 5 scrambled from the middle of Georgetown to battle the blaze. Firefighter Lt. John Busher reportedly injured fighting the flames when he fell through the bungalow second floor and was taken to Georgetown University Hospital.
After the fire, the church-like residence continued to be remodeled. The burnt frame was reinforced. It was rebuilt, renovated and landscaped. During the 97 years since, the home has seen many changes as it continued to hold large families -- whose kids still come back to see their childhood home and tell tales of missing staircases, dirt floor basements and being huddled around air conditioners during hot DC summers.
Copyright Alex Knott